Presents of mind: children’s books for the Christmas stocking

For a gift with lasting appeal, avoid the ‘festive’ books and head for fresh takes on the classics

Photograph: Getty Images

Photograph: Getty Images


Few people reading these words will need convincing that all Christmas stockings – children’s or otherwise – should contain at least one book.

With children’s books, the choice is almost endless, with something for all ages and tastes. As a rule, however, children’s books produced with Christmas specifically in mind rarely extend their appeal beyond the festivities: the really lasting “gift” material can often be found away from the tinsel and the baubles.

What follows is a short selection of the most attractive books which have come our way over the past year and are sufficiently engaging to deserve a permanent place on the children’s shelves.

Poetry books for children rarely hit the headlines, a fact which makes all the more welcome a delightful collection such as Michael Rosen’s A Great Big Cuddle: Poems for the Very Young (Walker Books, £14.99). Toddlers are catered for here not merely in the joyous and infectious wordplay of Rosen’s 35 poems but also in the dramatic pencil and watercolour artwork of Chris Riddell. Ideal for reading aloud and inviting toddler participation, Rosen’s poems open many windows into the beguiling world of early childhood.

One of the most enduring of ancient stories, Homer’s epic The Iliad comes to our attention once again, this time in a stunning version by Gillian Cross, with artwork by Neil Packer (Walker Books, £17.99).

The complexities of warfare are unravelled in a manner which alerts the reader to its tragedies and heroics. Episodes of high drama interweave with moments of poignancy and, in a succession of vivid characterisations, humanity is depicted in its numerous strengths and weaknesses.

Now available in paperback, Ali Smith’s widely praised retelling of The Story of Antigone (Pushkin Books, £7.99) offers further glimpses of an ancient world where the conflicting emotions of love and hate are openly, and often rawly, on display. The elegance of the book’s presentation is exquisitely complemented by Laura Paoletti’s illustrations.

Subtitled ‘A Visual History of Our World’, Peter Goes’s Timeline (Gecko Press, £16.99) is an ambitious survey – in some 80 large-format pages – of events from the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago to the Charlie Hebdo cartoons of January 2015.

The book’s appeal lies in its juxtapositions, encouraging the reader to pore over the details on each double-page spread and speculate on the links between them. This volume will serve as a valuable reference tool but, this apart, it is an object lesson in how to combine the most striking graphic design techniques with stimulating content.

Down the rabbit hole . . .

Alice’s Adventures in WonderlandWonderland Looking-GlassPhilip Pullman

“Prepare to take a journey around Ireland and discover the wonders that lie just outside your door.” The promise offered by Fatti and John Burke’s Irelandopedia (Gill & Macmillan, €24.99) is more than fulfilled in this diverting “compendium of maps, facts and knowledge”.

Dealing alphabetically with each of the 32 counties, the father and daughter team has assembled and illustrated an intriguing cross-section of our native “wonders”, human, natural and otherwise. The book’s appeal, rather as with Goes’s volume, is in its humour and idiosyncratic juxtapositions. Co Antrim, for example, manages to encompass Van Morrison, CS Lewis, the 1,200 animals in Belfast Zoo, the Ecos Centre in Ballymena, the DeLorean car and the “vanishing lake” known as Loughareema. The overall tone of the book is amusingly folksy and droll, manifest in both text and artwork.

The Burkes’ double-page spread for Armagh includes a reminder that a first edition of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels can be seen in the Armagh City Library. While experts continue to debate whether or not Swift’s classic text is a “children’s book” it is certainly the case that numerous retellings and adaptations of it, aimed primarily at a child readership, have appeared over the years.

In the most recent of these, entitled Gulliver (O’Brien Press, €14.99) Mary Webb retells the first two of Gulliver’s adventures, his journeys to Lilliput and Brobdingnag, in a style which makes them accessible to readers of seven upwards. Most of the flavour of the original has been retained, both in the prose and in Lauren O’Neill’s striking full-colour illustrations. This is a handsomely produced introduction to one of the key texts in our literature.

Anna Sewell’s classic Victorian children’s novel Black Beauty has retained its popularity with young readers and has remained steadily in print since its first publication in 1877.

It now reappears, in an abridged edition, retold and illustrated by Ruth Brown (Andersen Press, £12.99), whose artwork captures the fluctuating fortunes of the equine hero. The high drama of key incidents, such as the occasion when “flames roared through the yard”, is vividly portrayed, nicely balancing the warmth of sentiment with which the story concludes. This version will be a real treat for young horse-lovers but its appeal will be wider than this might suggest.

Winner of the Kate Greenaway award for his 2014 picture book Shackleton’s Journey, William Grill has now produced an ingeniously compiled and extremely stylish Shackleton’s Journey Activity Book (Flying Eye Books, £9.99).

Starting with a summary of the Irish-born explorer’s career, the book proceeds, in Grill’s words, “to test the reader’s resourcefulness at every turn”, via a sequence of inventive activities including map-making, model-design, puzzle-solving, game playing, creative writing and many varieties of artwork.

There is a great deal of geographical and historical information to be assimilated, all in a manner which makes it fresh and painless. Many “activity books” demand little more than mindless time-filling but Grill’s escapes all such criticism.

For anyone – regardless of age – visiting London and hoping for a preview of some of the principal landmarks Paul Thurlby’s L is for London (Hodder, £14.99) will prove a colourful travelling companion. Arranged alphabetically, the guide devotes each double-page spread to a particular attraction, blending brief factual information on the left-hand side with poster-type pictures on the right. We start with Abbey Road, end with London Zoo and in between visit, among 24 others, Downing Street (complete with resident cat), the Globe Theatre, the Crown Jewels, the Millennium Bridge and St Pancras. (Full marks to Thurlby for selecting Foyles Bookshop with its marvellous staircases to represent the letter “F”.) The tone is light-hearted and the details often mischievous. As a playful touch, a “sneaky London fox” has made its way on to each of the poster pages: there will be fun spotting some of these!

There is further opportunity for character-spotting in Michael Foreman’s timely fable The Little Bookshop and the Origami Army! (Andersen Press, £11.99). In a certain town the mayor has decided to demolish a “little bookshop”, replacing it with a supermarket. To the rescue come Joey and his friend Origami Girl. She summons up an “Origami army” of some of the best known characters from children’s books and leads them to the Houses of Parliament to rally support but nobody there shows any interest. Undeterred, the resourceful girl now goes to the town’s public library, this time raising an army of the great and the good among writers. “We are such stuff as dreams are made on,” says one of them, “a little bald Origami warrior”.

It is all great fun, done with a very light touch, and all in a very good cause. The full-colour illustrations, by Foreman himself, add immeasurably to the book’s humour but at the same time make their contribution to one of its central points, voiced by a member of the Origami Army. “We are not just made of paper. We are made of IDEAS. We are made of things you can never destroy.”

Myths on the move

The highly regarded translator Anthea Bell has provided us with an exquisite example in her retelling of a Russian folktale, Vasilisa the Beautiful (minedition, £16.99), where Anna Morgunova’s richly detailed illustrations must count among the most impressive of the year.

Essentially a variation on the numerous eastern European stories featuring the enigmatic figure of Baba Yaga, Vasilisa’s experiences may eventually represent a series of triumphs over adversity but, in keeping with much of the atmosphere of folktale, the adversity will at times for her be hard to bear. Nevertheless, she perseveres, in a narrative where the mysterious, the eerie and the everyday domestic are seen to live very closely together.

The well-filled bookshelves which serve as cover design and end-papers in Thierry Robberecht’s The Wolf Who Fell Out of a Book (Ragged Bears, £11.99) prepare us for another “book about books”, in this case structured around a clever series of allusions to some of our best known fairytales and their characters. A wolf falls out of his particular book, thereby embarking on an unpredictable adventure – and one that starts, worryingly enough for him, with an encounter with a rather fearsome cat. Traditional roles are reversed.

“In my book,” he says, “I’m a scary wolf and everyone is frightened of me”. “Maybe,” said the cat. “but you’re not in your book now”. Originating in Belgium and illustrated (with a book-lover’s eye) by Grégoire Mabire, this is a book to challenge many of our assumptions about stories, the way we tell them and the way we expect them to turn out.

Robert Dunbar is a commentator on children’s books

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